Five Comments on The Underground Railroad
Barry Jenkins's ten-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead's 2016 novel The Underground Railroad was released in full on Amazon last month, and seems to have promptly sunk like a stone. Beyond a spate of initial (and mostly effusive) reviews, discussion of it seems to be nonexistent. My twitter feed spent more time obsessing over Mare of Easttown—a well-made but pedestrian cop thriller (not to mention, heavily derivative of Happy Valley)—than it did over what was supposedly one of the major TV events of the year, the first foray in the medium of an Oscar-winning director, adapting a book that had won a Pulitzer and National Book Award (not to mention, a Clarke Award). There are reasons for this muted response, and we'll get into them in a minute. But for now what's significant about it is that it leaves me feeling bereft, of the conversations I'd like to get into after finishing the show. The Underground Railroad is a stone cold masterpiece, one that not only shoulders the challenging task of adapting the novel it was based on with seeming ease, but that breaks new ground in terms of what television can be and how it can achieve its effect. It deserves sustained, continued discussion and exploration. So this post isn't a review—I'm not sure I feel equal to that—so much as a series of observations, ones that will hopefully get more people to watch the show, and talk about it.
The first thing that needs to be said about The Underground Railroad is that it is the most visually stunning television series ever created. That's not hyperbole or exaggeration, but a simple fact. There has never been a TV show that paid this much attention to color, lighting, composition, and the choreography of its camera movement in every single scene and frame. Jenkins and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer James Laxton, shot the show in Georgia, and many scenes revel in its natural scenery—the lush swamp that heroine Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and her companion Caesar (Aaron Pierre) must cross as they make the first of many escapes from slavery; the enormous trees that Cora and her paramour Royal (William Jackson Harper) stand beneath as they make their first, hesitant overtures towards one another. But Jenkins also uses the natural scenery in a composed, almost artificial way, to convey his characters' (and sometimes also their society's) state of mind. When thinking of the people she's left behind, and the ones who fell and were recaptured during her escape, Cora often pictures the fields where she once picked cotton. Jenkins shoots them dappled in golden light, the pickers standing unnaturally still, as if offering us a glimpse of another world—one that Cora has escaped, but can't help looking back at. In the season's lynchpin episode, Cora, now captured by the slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), travels across Tennessee in the aftermath of an enormous fire. Jenkins stages the episode almost as a journey through hell, his camera peering through the billowing smoke, following his characters as they walk through a landscape of smoldering tree trunks and piles of ash, pulling back often to convey the extent of the devastation.
In manmade environments, too, Jenkins's camera tells a story. The Underground Railroad is, famously, a novel that not only literalizes its titular metaphor, imagining that a real railroad exists beneath America that carries runaway slaves to freedom, but whose characters travel through history as well as geography, touring the myriad forms that the oppression of black people has taken over the course of America's existence. On Cora's first stop, in South Carolina, Jenkins's staging of the town where she and Caesar have allegedly found safety feels almost retro-futuristic. A long shot early in the episode follows Cora as she walks along the town's main street, slowly revealing the skyscraper at its end—a building that most of us would consider historical, but which is here made to seem out of place and sinister, like a watchful eye. Another shot, of a group performing calisthenics, views them from high above, their even lines and synchronized movements seeming to belong more to a futuristic dystopia, something like Brave New World, than a story about slavery in the 19th century. In the next episode, Cora arrives in North Carolina, to a town that has decided to "cleanse" itself of black people, and is forced to hide. Jenkins centers the episode around the town's church, a structure with open walls and, at its center, a shrine made of lit lanterns. It's an unreal touch that is never explained, or reconciled with the bog-standard Christianity espoused by the town's inhabitants. But it creates an impression of a pre-Christian cult, something out of a folk horror movie, which tracks perfectly with the town's bloody rituals and bloody-minded beliefs.
And then, of course, there is the railroad. When Cora and Caesar first venture underground, what they find is an unadorned cave with a track running through it. The train itself is rather utilitarian—at one point, Cora hitches a ride on a maintenance train, and is forced to tie herself with a rope so as not to fly off the open car. Unsurprisingly, the tunnel and the light of the train traveling in it are treated as a sort of liminal space, with the camera often following characters into both. And eventually, the railroad itself transforms, into an elegant, well-appointed means of locomotion, whose stations are decorated with tile, brass, and wood paneling. (Not coincidentally, this transformation occurs when the show moves away from stations whose caretakers are white people—who are usually well-meaning but in over their heads, and ultimately too frightened to carry on with their dangerous vocation—to those maintained by black people.) When Cora finally visits the railroad's central station, it is a Victorian fantasia, a bustling hub full of black people moving to and fro. And yet Jenkins shoots it like a dream world, or perhaps even the afterlife. Its colors are a little too rich to be real, and around some corners there are just too many shadows, and doors beyond which the light changes—doors that Cora is warned not to open because she might not be ready for what lies on the other side. The show incorporates elements from Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist, and as that novel did with elevators, it treats trains as an unreal space, and shoots them in a way that emphasizes their strangeness.
It's easy to be drawn in by all this visual splendor, but it also raises some uncomfortable questions. Chiefly: is it right that a show about something so horrible, which does not shy away from the brutality of slavery and the abuses heaped upon African Americans throughout history, should also be so gorgeous to look at? In the opening episode, another slave on Cora and Caesar's plantation, Big Anthony (Elijah Everett), runs away and is recaptured, and is then subjected to a sadistic punishment. When Anthony's brutalized body is on screen (which, to be fair, is not very often; in general, Jenkins tends to err on the side of implying or reporting violence rather than depicting it), it is just as beautiful as every other object seen on the show. The red of the blood seeping from his wounds is rich and deep, and the sweat on his skin glistens in the golden light.
We just recently, in discussions of another Amazon series, Them, had a conversation about depicting black pain on screen, and especially aestheticized, composed images of it. It's obviously not my place to make a final judgment call here, but when I compare The Underground Railroad to Them (or to Antebellum, a much-derided 2020 film that also combined science fiction and black suffering), I feel as if the emotions that they are trying to evoke are very different. In Them, the vibe I got from the moments in which it lingered over the abuse of its black characters was "can you believe this?" It was trying to shock, which eventually became indistinguishable from prurience and fetishism. The Underground Railroad, it feels to me, is trying to arouse pity and sorrow. When it shows us Anthony, the emphasis is not on his abuse but on the next shot, of his fellow slaves standing in mute horror, barely holding in their tears (and on Cora and Caesar realizing that they have to run). In the next scene, the camera observes from high above as the slaves silently return to the cotton field, their shock and numbness obvious even from far away. I'm not sure if that makes Jenkins's visual choices in this scene (and several others) OK, but if I try to explain why Them felt exploitative and The Underground Railroad doesn't, this is what I come up with.
Another way in which The Underground Railroad distinguishes itself from most other TV series is in being, unabashedly, a work of magical realism. That's a tough genre to define, but very broadly, I'd describe it as incorporating unreal elements into its world in a way that doesn't conform to any system and resists neat explanation and categorization. In other words, a work that is strange and otherworldly without ever solving itself. On The Underground Railroad, this quality is observed first through the show's refusal to commit to a pattern, to be entirely fantastical or entirely realistic. Cora spends a few episodes traveling on the railroad, getting off at stops that are each their own world, operating according to their own internal logic—in South Carolina, they take in runaway slaves, educate and employ them, and secretly sterilize them; in North Carolina, they exterminate any black person who crosses the state lines.
But just as we've gotten used to this progression, it breaks down. The narrative sometimes moves away from Cora entirely, and whole episodes pass without her traveling on the railroad. When she arrives at the railroad's final stop in Indiana, at the black-owned commune and refuge of Valentine Farm, the show seems to shift to an entirely realistic mode. And yet lingering underground there is still an access point to the railroad, to remind us that the unreal is still there. It's never even entirely clear how the different pieces of the show's America fit together. When Ridgeway follows Cora to South Carolina, he's told about a "strange town" where they have something called a "skyscraper"—as if the antebellum, slave-owning south could coexist with Gilded Age scientific racism without people thinking the juxtaposition between them anything more than strange.
It's tempting, of course, to take it all as a metaphor—after all, we're talking about a story whose entire conceit is a literalized metaphor. So if it feels as if by traveling on the railroad, Cora moves between distinct worlds that can't coexist with one another, that's because the further she gets from her old life, the more difficult it is to fathom its logic and rules. The people on Valentine Farm are kind and sympathetic, but they can't imagine the suffering that Cora has witnessed and experienced. To them, she might as well be a visitor from another planet—one that they, perhaps, don't wish to learn too much about. But the metaphor never entirely holds together. The railroad, for example, is sometimes a dream, sometimes entirely literal, and sometimes a space between life and death. You can't reduce it to only one of those things without the rest of the story collapsing.
This, to me, feels like an quintessentially magical realist approach to storytelling—strangeness and otherworldliness existing in the story not because they fit into a rational pattern or a neat metaphor, but because of the emotions they're intended to evoke, the resonances they have for the characters and audience. It's not an approach one tends to see in television, which deploys strangeness primarily as a way of hinting at depth and importance—think of the way that the first season of True Detective seemed to promise a tale of cosmic horror before resolving into a run of the mill detective story. Twin Peaks is probably the show that has come closest to what The Underground Railroad achieves, but it has the escape hatch of hanging its story on a manichean struggle between good and evil, which makes its refusal to offer concrete answers to its mysteries more palatable.
The Underground Railroad doesn't do this—which is a little strange in itself, since what lends itself better to a manichean struggle between good and evil than an escape from slavery? There is no shortage of stories about enslaved people who develop superpowers or gain access to some other world that allows them to circumvent the system of slavery and white supremacy. But The Underground Railroad is most decidedly not that kind of story, and in fact works hard to make sure we never mistake it for them. It's notable that despite having access to actual magic, black people in the story are no safer or more powerful than their real-world counterparts. Like its use of visuals, this is another way in which Jenkins brings a cinematic sensibility to his TV work, and it suits his source material—which, like the show, declines to offer any concrete answers.
The narrative that has coalesced around The Underground Railroad is that Amazon did the show a disservice by releasing it all at once rather than week-by-week. That by concentrating the show's press attention over a single weekend, it made it easier to forget going forward, and by dumping an entire block of material—touching on such difficult subject matter—all at once, it created an edifice that some viewers might feel hesitant to embark upon. My personal experience was that I needed to let each episode sit with me before continuing to the next—if there's such a thing as an anti-binge-watch, The Underground Railroad is it.
But I would go even further, and say that by releasing the show all at once, Amazon was making a value statement that may have proved fatal to the show's prospects. In the rapidly-evolving ecosphere of streaming shows, weekly releases tend to signal importance, prestige, or just the expectation that this is a work that can generate buzz consistently. There are exceptions—Stranger Things, The Queen's Gambit—but especially for shows aiming at the prestige drama label, a full-season release feels like a sign that the distributors don't believe in the show. It's particularly jarring to consider that Amazon has previously crowed about shifting The Boys from a full-season release to weekly instalments in response to the first season's glowing reviews. Or that Them, this year's other high-profile Amazon release by black creators and about black suffering, was also a full-season release, at the same time that fellow freshman Invincible was getting the week-by-week treatment. It feels as if a statement is being made about what kind of shows are likely to find a wide audience, and critics willing to champion them beyond their opening weekend.
All that having been said, it should also be acknowledged that The Underground Railroad was never going to be Invincible. In fact, having watched it, I am struck by how uninterested it seems in courting its audience. The magical realist quality plays a role here—it's easy to imagine viewers feeling frustrated not only by the way the fantastical intrudes on the realistic with no explanation or discernible pattern, but by the characters' lack of response to it, or by the way that the show (much like the book) refuses to signpost some of its strangeness—it's left for us to realize, for example, that skyscrapers weren't a thing in the first half of the 19th century.
In its handling of its subject matter, too, the show seems indifferent to its audience's (and perhaps especially its white audience's) feelings—not in the in-your-face way of Them, which tries at every turn to arouse revulsion (which is, in its own way, a form of courting the audience), but in the sense that it seems not to care whether viewers experience catharsis or closure while watching Cora's story. Early episodes establish Caesar as a romantic hero, whose soulful, intense gazes at Cora create the impression of a sweeping love story just waiting to erupt. But by the end of the second episode, Cora has been forced to leave Caesar behind, and he doesn't even get a dramatic farewell scene or a tragic death—his horrific end is reported to Cora secondhand several episodes later. In the next episode, Cora befriends a young girl, Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman), and even sacrifices herself to keep Grace from being recaptured. The season visits Grace in a later episode to show us that she, too, ends up on the railroad. And then she's never seen again. Cora never learns what became of her, and the show even takes the dramatically confusing step of giving her another young girl to care for. It's a choice that can leave viewers feeling alienated, but that feels like the point. As in the novel, there is no final escape for Cora, no climax of the hero's journey (though such tales, from Gulliver's Travels to The Odyssey, are namechecked throughout the season). The heartbreaking consequence of her constant escapes is that she leaves people behind, leaves the stories she'd been creating with them unfinished, without hope of resolution.
It's easy to be overawed by the enormity of The Underground Railroad's accomplishment as a visual work, but the show is also remarkable for the elegance with which it adapts Whitehead's novel. The adaptation work is deceptively simple, following the plot beats of the novel—which is, after all, conveniently demarcated into very distinct chapters—with, for the most part, great fidelity. But by expanding the story out from Cora's point of view, Jenkins and his writers have the opportunity to give viewers a broader glimpse of her world. In the season's penultimate episode, for example, they explore the political tensions that underlie the idyllic surface of Valentine Farm, between those who want to keep the farm closed off to the outside world, and those who believe that their financial success makes cooperation with the white establishment possible. The episode culminates in a fiery debate between representatives of the two approaches, that touches on respectability politics, colorism, and the very soul of America.
No less interesting is the way the show grapples with white characters and white society. The chapters focusing on Ridgeway were the aspect of the novel that I found most problematic, and I admit that I sighed a little when I realized that the fourth episode was a flashback to his youth. But the show achieves something remarkable with this installment, crafting a template for a villain origin story that creators in every genre would do well to learn from. The teenage Ridgeway is the son of a free-thinker (Peter Mullan) who believes in "the great spirit", a force that animates all living beings and which some people have a special connection to. Ridgeway Sr. claims to be able to sense the spirit in others, including black people, which is why he employs freedmen rather than owning slaves. To the young Ridgeway, who struggles to sense the spirit in himself, this belief ends up feeling exclusionary rather than inclusive, and he finally chooses to reject his father's philosophy rather than (as he sees it) be rejected by it. It's a backstory that might have ended up seeming monstrously facile—he turned evil because his father couldn't show him love—but the more we see of Ridgeway, the clearer it is that what drives him away from his father is greed and a desire to feel important. That the reason he can't sense the spirit in himself is a fundamental lack of compassion for others, and especially black people.
The episode also doesn't spare Ridgeway Sr., whose philosophy is ultimately proven insufficient. He tries to stand apart from his society, refusing to participate in its crimes. But he lacks the courage to openly condemn slavery. That silence leaves his son open to the worldview espoused by everyone else around him, who teach him that slavery is right and proper. The young Ridgeway even ends up using his father's teachings—that he should strive to see himself in everyone he meets—to become a better slave catcher, weaponizing empathy into a means of getting into the heads of his quarry and working out their next move.
This is only one of the ways in which The Underground Railroad diagnoses white American society with spiritual poverty, a sickness rooted in the need to justify slavery and the extermination of Native Americans. Ridgeway, for example, points out that his father's "great spirit" philosophy is borrowed (and probably heavily bastardized) from Native Americans, a tacit acknowledgment that even this partial, insufficient version of goodness can only come from outside of American whiteness. In North Carolina, Cora is hidden in the attic of the local station master, Martin (Damon Herriman), whose wife Ethel (Lily Rabe) is bigoted and hostile. Ethel is also a devout Christian, and tries to give Cora religious instruction, never perceiving a contradiction between her bigotry and her claim to moral superiority. But though everyone in the episode proclaims their religious belief, it's made clear that the primary purpose of their version of Christianity is to justify exploitation and genocide. The result is a psychic wound, a creed that offers its adherents neither a reliable guide to living a righteous life, nor a foundation for moral courage. When Martin and Ethel are exposed, they try to cling to their faith, but it proves pathetically insufficient.
Throughout the season, The Underground Railroad keeps returning to the image of white children and youths being taught the precepts of white supremacy and manifest destiny. When Cora first escapes slavery, she kills a boy who tries to recapture her. That murder is repeatedly brought up—mostly by Ridgeway but also by others, including some of the inhabitants of Valentine Farm, who are no less horrified by it than he is—as a reason why Cora is no normal runaway, and why she doesn't deserve liberty. But the season's emphasis on the indoctrination of white children suggests another interpretation: that the real culprit in this boy's death is the society that taught him to look at a woman fleeing enslavement, and put himself on the side of her enslavers. A society that would rather kill its own children—be it a death of the body or of the soul—than give up its addiction to exploitation. It's a decisive rebuke to the way that so many stories about slavery get bogged down in the question of whether this particular white person is good or bad. The answer, The Underground Railroad finally concludes, is that they've all drunk poison, and it's the system feeding them that poison that is the real villain.
When I reviewed The Underground Railroad five years ago, I came down more on the side of admiration than love. Whitehead, it seemed to me, was constrained by a dilemma that often afflicts art about atrocity. Caught between the desire to capture history as it was, and the demands of drama, to provide a story with a definite conclusion, either happy or sad. Whichever ending he gave Cora, it would feel like a value judgment—if she found safety, would that be dishonest to the real people like her, for whom freedom was out of reach? If she finally failed to escape recapture, would that read as a rebuke to readers who wanted a happy ending for her (not to mention, no less dishonest to the people who did manage to eke out happiness and a good life in the belly of a predatory system)? He ended up choosing neither, leaving an otherwise brilliant work feeling somehow unfinished. Jenkins doesn't change the novel's ambiguous ending, but he and his writers do manage to imbue it with a sense of at least partial triumph, even as they make it clear why that triumph can never be total.
They achieve this, paradoxically enough, by leaning into the idea that there is no such thing as a true escape for people like Cora—perhaps for all black people in her era. That every escape they make can only ever be a partial, temporary one. That they must choose an imperfect form of freedom, and hope for the best. When Cora is captured by Ridgeway halfway into the season, she is shackled to another recaptured runaway, Jasper (Calvin Leon Smith), who has decided to stop eating. Jasper insists to Cora that he is the free one, about to make one final escape. For a while, Cora follows suit, but eventually she decides to live. In its depiction of Jasper's final moments, however, the show leaves room for the possibility that he has achieved a kind of freedom that Cora can never find in this life. Later, on Valentine Farm, Cora's presence divides the residents, some of whom are horrified by her history of murder, and insist that they can never be accepted by white society so long as they continue to shelter people like her. The furious debate on this question is interrupted by the arrival of a posse bent on the farm's eradication, organized by people who are scandalized by the idea of black prosperity. The interruption of the debate by the attack makes it clear: there is no right answer that would have guaranteed the farm's safety. No one weird trick that would make it possible for Cora and people like her to live in total peace and freedom. All they can hope for is safety for now.
It's a dark message, but at its center, I think the show finds a form of liberation. The only escape, it concludes, is constant motion—and, more importantly, the companions you meet along the way. Cora leaves behind many people on her various escapes. For many of them, she never learns their fate (and sometimes when she does it feels as if it would have been better not to know). But when she escapes from Valentine, she's able to save one person, a young girl. And later they meet someone else, and agree to be traveling companions. Which brings us back to the image of the railroad as a liberating force. Not because it carries people away from slavery and towards safety—a safety that, the show ultimately concludes, doesn't really exist. But because it's something black people have built together, a way of developing fellowship, of sharing their stories, and of remembering those who have been lost. When the series closes on an image of Cora at the beginning of yet another journey, her tired face set towards the unknown, there's a hint of hope in it that wasn't in the novel. Not because we believe that this time she's going to find a permanent home, but because for once, she isn't alone.